The "Lantana" star becomes thunder down under

Central casting couldn’t conjure up a better Italian-American tough guy than Anthony LaPaglia. With his lumbering swagger and tight-lipped delivery, the 42-year-old actor has shifted effortlessly between roles as nasty gangsters and hero cops—not to mention the odd nasty cop and hero gangster. It’s been the kind of steady, two-decade-long career that buys a house in Greenwich Village and invites admiring glances in this swank Manhattan bar from a waitress who shyly approaches when he leaves, to ask, ”It’s driving me crazy—what’s the name of that guy again?”

Well, it was almost Tony Hawkins, had LaPaglia—who’s currently receiving the reviews of a lifetime for his star turn in the Australian film Lantana—listened to his agent’s advice when he arrived in Los Angeles from Australia in the early ’80s. (His father, an auto mechanic, is Italian; his mother is Dutch.) ”He said, ‘Lose the accent and change your name,”’ recalls the actor, dressed in a black shirt, black leather jacket, black pants, and guess-what-color boots. The actor lost his accent by obsessively watching and mimicking Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, but he refused to lose ”LaPaglia.” ”My agent said, ‘It’s going to limit what you do.’ And you know what? He was right.”

LaPaglia first gained critical attention playing a love-struck mobster in 1990’s Betsy’s Wedding, and won audience recognition six years later as a lawyer on TV’s Murder One. ”I ran from fame,” LaPaglia admits, adding that he assumed he’d have a myriad of other chances to capitalize on the attention. He was more prepared in 1998, when he won a Tony for his performance in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, and he says he’s thrilled with the praise he’s receiving for Lantana, a complex drama about four couples’ tangled relationships. LaPaglia, his native Aussie lilt fully reengaged, stars as Leon Zat, a cop struggling to find his way after 20 years of marriage. ”I really understood him,” says the actor, whom costar Kerry Armstrong describes as having ”the sweetest soul and a great sense of gravity.” (The movie, which is now playing in New York and L.A. and goes wide later this month, has been named Best Film, and LaPaglia Best Actor, by the Australian Film Institute.)

”Leon is a guy who wakes up every morning and says, ‘How the f— did this happen to my life?’ And that’s what happens to us, to almost everyone in the world. As we get older, our lives happen to us,” LaPaglia says, zipping and unzipping his boot (the actor quit smoking about nine months ago, and his hands are constantly searching). ”The irony has totally not been lost on me that I ran away from Australia to build a career, but the movie that’s doing the most for my career is from Australia.”

LaPaglia frequently runs back Down Under with his wife, Australian actress Gia Carides (Strictly Ballroom), 35. And while he’s been deluged with prime post-Lantana offers, the actor—who will coproduce and star in a film adaptation of A View From the Bridge—says he’d like to lighten his nonstop workload. (In the coming months, he’ll appear in The Salton Sea, starring Val Kilmer, and the Tom Hanks gangster thriller The Road to Perdition.) ”The thing is, I never wanted to be a leading man. I actually find the idea a little uninteresting,” he says. So if he’s offered a Hollywood glam role, he’ll say no? ”Of course not!” he roars. ”If the material warrants it, I’ll do it. And if the check is big enough,” he says with a not-so-tough-guy giggle, ”I’m there.”